"Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."
Yesterday began Lent, and I had been praying and meditating on what to give up: Coffee. Chocolate. Sweets. So many cliche answers come to mind, and while Lent is about sacrificing what's important to us, or what we love with such second-natured-ness, it's also about something bigger than that, something about the heart. About why we give up, why we sacrifice; what our motivation is.
So yes, for Lent this year, I am giving up coffee (if you know me, that's the obvious- and most ambitious- decision). But let's be honest: me giving up coffee doesn't necessarily draw my heart closer to God (I could certainly give up coffee by relying on my own self-control), nor does it really offer anything to anyone else.
And I think that is the important part of this season: not just that we exercise self-discipline for forty days, but that we practice obediently ridding ourselves of things for the purpose of leaving a pure, open, heart-space for the Lord to move and speak in us.
Our why is in reference to God, and others, not just our own self-mastery or accomplishment. Sacrifice is about the position of our hearts.
That's what the Christian journey on the whole is about too: diagnosing the realest, innermost state of my being, noticing how I covet and want and am possessive over- held captive by- the things of this world and the thoughts of my mind instead of sustained by God, who satisfies fully.
Who cures our restlessness, casts out our confusion, allows us to think, feel, be, do, express, act however we want- but does consciously prompt us to choose Him first, to let our lives express themselves as a wellspring of peace and grace that flows from having Him- from having Love- at the center.
It's interesting what happens to your actual life when you find Christ's love and you choose to let it fill you through your faith. For myself, I've realized that a change more powerful than any personal, 'religious' or 'spiritual,' self-guided, physical, intellect-based change I have ever tried to attain on my own to bring myself real, unwavering, lasting joy and inner peace has come over- and into- the very essence of my being. Knowing God affects who we fundamentally believe we are, and it reorients what we think is worth thinking about while we seek deeper truths for lasting peace.
But this is not without work, of course; not without tuning in to God, and seeking Him; listening to Him versus to my anxiety; reading the Bible and letting it speak to my soul and guide me (largely to where I am now); giving up things all along the path, not just during Lent, that I once thought were 'normal' or 'fine' or 'acceptable'- but that weren't bringing me closer to Him, closer to lasting, character-centered, genuine peace. God asks us to sacrifice, yes; but He also promises to give infinitely more than we could ever conceive of getting.
Loving God back has changed everything about who I fundamentally think I am, and what I think I'm ultimately here for, and so to give something up to honor and draw closer to Him isn't a resentful act, but an obedient, willing one. It's that 'posturing of the heart' to say not, 'I'm not giving this up because I have the willpower,' but 'I'm giving this up because I desire God more.'
So, all that said, in addition to simply going without coffee for the next forty days, I'm also going to do the following for Lent.
Every day (starting yesterday), I'm going to write a letter.
I'm going to try to be aware enough of others during the course of every day- in interactions, conversations; even just thoughts, feelings; if I think about someone who I think could use a note, someone from back home or someone close by- to sit down every night and write a letter to them. Looking for ways to simply serve and love (not change or convince) the hearts of others means setting myself up to end egoism, and actively give love, and more grace.
I may give the letters, I may not. I may give them in weeks or months or when the timing is right; some I may save and never wind up being able to give at all. The point is to be aware of the heart needs of other people and write an articulate, thoughtful, loving letter to them as though I personally knew them (even if I don't, even if they're just a stranger or someone I've had a brief interaction with), and speak mindful, intentional kindness to them.
Aside from increasing my awareness of others' needs, the additional goal of this exercise would be to increase prayer: to be more intentional about noticing the needs of others and bringing them to God. Writing a letter to someone means thinking about their needs, and especially if I don't wind up giving them, praying for people is an honest, genuine delivery to God of a desire for their well-being, a humble request brought to the only One who ultimately has control.
Taking time to pray and give in heart and mind to others decreases self-focus and increases the happiness we often, ironically, seek by caring or thinking only about ourselves. But actively loving God, and caring about others because we know they are His children- just as precious, just as valuable, just as desired by Him as we are- produces more love.
I think a truly easy-going, truly free spirit is not one who revels in rebellion against what the world wants of them, but who is at peace with who they are in Christ, and knows what God wants from them. This spirit is the result of remembering who we belong to and fighting the right battles in this world.
The call of faith constantly reminds me (or more is a way of guiding me to live) unworried about the things in this life that just don't matter- the big things, but actually, mostly, the little things. Working for God is not the same thing as working against worry- though it does effectively solve the problem.
Working against worry, for that happy, satisfying life we all seek, is not the same process as letting that life be a byproduct of knowing God, of being totally satisfied in Him. To think of, invest in, and sacrifice time, energy, and thought for others with a genuine heart for them and not my own needs or knowledge advancement requires a focus on the Lord.
So this season for Lent, in the spirit of serving and giving in humble ways, I hope the fruit will be a softening and opening of my heart, and an overflow of God's grace and joy for others.
"Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love." -Martin Luther King Jr